Text by John Burns 2016.
What does contemporary art have to do with migrants and migration? When we normally view the subject through modern eyes it’s usually all about dodgy photographs, boredom and things somebody found in their grandfather’s attic. For me looking at the paintings of George Raftopoulos, it’s all about ghosts on the canvas.
Despite what the experts will tell you, good painting is a chicken and an egg type thing. The public gets what galleries think constitutes modernity as opposed to art that is actually part of the modern world. The notion of contemporary painting tends to conjure up thoughts of narrow minded navel gazers trying to avoid a work for the dole scheme. As cave art and the Sistine chapel can attest, there was a time when painting was expected to be more about the community than the artist’s own daydream. This is why when really good contemporary art comes along it confounds critical expectation. George Raftopoulos’s series of works based around Greek immigration to Australia does the confounding eloquently. It is a prime example of how 21st century art can still communicate big ideas without needing a stable Wi Fi connection. There is a reflective quality to these works, both in how they are seen by the audience and the feelings they evoke. George makes them more than a set of Kodachrome memories. Playing with the notion of migrant identity or absence thereof, he invites us all along for the journey.
Post world war two migration from Greece has become part of our nation’s folklore. This gives almost everything associated with it a mythic quality. From milk bars to fruit shops it’s easy to live in a halcyon era. But what is lost in the process is the often harsh reality of being a stranger in a strange land. There was always more to being Greek in Australia than “Con the Fruiterer’ .This exhibition does not rehash the bare bones of history, but rather explores a parallel emotional story of the lives involved. A key trait throughout the works is George’s own ambition to see Greek immigration to Australia as more than a textbook event. He wants us to remember that the lives often observed by two lines in a government publication or stereotypes in a comedy sketch are those of real people. George’s paintings bring these experiences of the past back into contemporary focus. They are ghosts of the Charles Dickens kind. Juxtaposed with Greece’s own current crisis of refugees, the series reminds us of the shifting way we see migrants both past and present.
With George’s images, the notion of the eyes being windows to the soul is actually true. You get a reminder looking at the collection, that all humans are migrants. Travelling between cultures has never been a case of just reaching point B. Whether it be sixty years ago, a million years past or last week, it’s not who the migrant actually is but who they are seen to be that matters. Via a process of primitively printed smudges on each canvas, George loosens the identity from each individual portrait. Whilst we know that these images are based upon Greek immigrants, their immediate identification is lost to a point in which they can become anybody. Devoid of a bias towards an ethnicity we are left with who we are. As a collected group, they look like a gallery of freaks. As individual images you respond to the traits you see in yourself. These are light and dark mirrors, both complimenting and condemning the viewer. Your ego asks “how could anyone defame or vilify anyone like me?” The ghost replies “well you did, didn’t you?”
I’m a Gen X, one of the last eras’s in which the term “Wog” was still used as part of the everyday vocabulary. Few of us cringed at the term back then, I do now. But just because something becomes politically incorrect, does not necessarily mean society changes or the wounds heal overnight. The works Prophet and Dreamer reflect this sense of dystopia. Prophet carves a face out of black and white toning. Black to the left, white to the right and grey down the middle. As hordes of Syrian refugees flood Greece today, it is a stern reminder that migrants are seen in a variety of emotive ways, both in hindsight and at the time of their arrival. The work doesn’t make the judgment of good or bad, the audience does. George over prints the piece with a motif resembling lace. Almost like some kind medieval costume drama, there is a sense of royalty. Perhaps, as George likes to suggest we are all “emperors” with our new clothes. The way we see new arrivals is blinded by our own sense of perfection. The lace effect across the Prophet face resembles the fabric from a church as it does the tablecloth from “the Oasis” cafe. The identity of the migrant becoming as much what we project on top of them as who they really are.
Dreamer is a humorous brain piece. A strong fleshy pink color contrasts the human nature of the Dreamer to the more austere grays and blues of his brother the Prophet. There is a different slant on communication too. Whereas Prophet suggests a sense of almost of John the Baptist style ire, preaching outward to us sinners, in Dreamer the audience is literally looking inside the mind of a migrant. As George’s frantic lines in the cranium suggest, it is a head filled with both ideas and emotion. An ear pointing one way whilst the face is moving another means a life in a hurry to start. It also presents a strong need to keep traveling, whether to arrive at a destination quicker or to avoid being beaten up by unhappy locals.
Most contemporary art asks the viewer to leave their brain at the door so they can be “enlightened” by someone who knows more than they do. In these conditions a series of works on migration could quite easily become one of flag waving or flag burning.
This exhibition is in sharp relief to the pseudo-intellectualism that presents itself on many gallery walls. George has a sense of humour, these are odd things to look at and he knows it. But being an oddity is what the migrant, and for that matter the human experience is all about. These paintings are conversations with the past. They don’t tell stories as much as they reacquaint us with people who should never be forgotten. If you enjoy a good landscape then this probably isn’t for you. But then again, maybe it is. These paintings show you the world from a broader perspective than just the artist or the critic. They urge us to be more, not just because they are clever, but we are too.
John Burns, March 2016
A memory written by Geordie Williamson 2012
The small town in rural NSW where I grew up in the 1970s and 80s boasted a single milk bar, owned and operated by the only Greek family for 100 miles.
I remember it as an exemplary instance of that hallowed antipodean space: entered via a blowfly-baffling swish of plastic strips, beyond which ran counters of speckled laminate, generously stocked with Smiths chips and rolls of Lifesavers. Bevelled milkshake cups were stacked on one corner, beneath posters for Chiko Rolls and flavoured Moove faded to a palette of orange and brown by the heat.
The son of the owner, George Raftopolous, was in my year at the local public school. He was a lively boy who made friends easily, despite the overwhelmingly Anglo cast of the school community. His popularity was enhanced by the fact the family shop had the only video games in town. The boy’s father would load credits into Frogger for those mates of his son who called in of an afternoon.
Later, my family moved away. I was sent to boarding school and lost touch with my friend. It was only decades later, with the aid of Facebook, that we reconnected. The boy had grown up to become one this country’s most talented younger painters, and his abstract canvases, which made reference to Greek myth and graffiti with equal brio, woke my curiosity. When I Googled him, however, certain statements made a lie of my complacent memories. In interviews, the artist spoke of the sense of exile he felt in our country town. He recalled instances of overt racism. During four years in New York, the artist was considered “an Aussie”, he said in an online interview, but back in the central west “we were wogs”.
The disjunction between that Greek boy’s easy accommodation to the cultural norms of the country Australia of our childhood and his mature retrospection was inexplicable to me until I began to read other stories by migrants relating their experiences of arrival on these shores. His story turned out to be a familiar one, in which private hurt and confusion are hidden behind a mask of conformity. It turns out that the child who arrives from the global Elsewhere knows instinctively the deformations of self that will be required of them to fit in.
I am not a trained art critic but I acknowledge the ‘expressionistic fierceness’ that others have identified in his work. George’s paintings, vivid and monumental in the spirit of Picasso’s neoclassical mode, blend two registers: the Greek past, whether the archaic past or the the near-present Corfu from which his family emigrated; and a use of colour and line that recalls Australia’s monochrome emptiness, as well as the fluid lines of John Olsen. The result is once familiar and alien, elegant and disquieting, rigourous and anarchic.
His work, in short, dissolves the complexities and crudities of Anglo-Australian culture by embracing its contradictions. The Lebanese writer Ghassan Hage has written of returning to to his grandparents’ former home in Bathurst, NSW, not far from where George and I grew up. In the overgrown backyard he discovers a fig, a pomegranate and an olive tree – “the holy Mediterranean trinity, or one of them, at least” – that his homesick forebears planted decades before.
For Hage, these fruit trees don’t merely partake of a quintessentially Anglo obsession with backyards, a “marking and shaping and rooting oneself” in space. Rather it is the knowledge that these trees were planted by his grandfather’s hand that makes Hage feel, after long estrangement, “Australian”. The original act of planting is a historical rhyme that allows the author to embrace a paradox: a sense of rootedness that ‘does not mean a sense of being locked to the ground, unable to move’ but instead makes the author feel as if he suddenly sprouted wings.
Hage’s arboreal epiphany, with its sense of the importance of gesture and cultural recombination, reminded me of my schoolfriend’s paintings. Raftopolous’s art does not fetishise what Hage calls an “anti-colonial belonging, which pits the belonging of the colonised against that of coloniser while conserving colonialism’s either/or logic.’ Nor are these works explicitly postcolonial, prematurely judging colonial culture as something already superseded. Instead, Raftopolous counters ‘colonial culture from a space beyond it, showing that another mode of belonging is possible’.